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Shores man jailed in Vero electric dispute tells of frustration

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of February 28, 2013)
Photo of Shores resident Theodore Winthrop "Ted" Robinson

Critics of Vero Beach utilities have long said that residents in the South Beach and Indian River Shores are being “held hostage” by the city, forced to subsidize municipal services through high electric rates.  But Shores resident Theodore Winthrop “Ted” Robinson is the only utility customer to actually be held in custody over the issue.

The charges for an incident with two Vero Beach electric workers at Robinson’s Sea Forest home have now been reduced, down from felony aggravated assault to misdemeanor simple assault and resisting arrest without violence, so the 75-year-old man probably won’t serve jail time if convicted. But the story of what led up to the confrontation tells a more compelling tale than what actually happened the day he went to jail in what Robinson views as an act of civil disobedience.

Details are more than a little fuzzy in Robinson’s mind – it was a traumatic day for him – and will be sorted out by the court. He started out the day at home with a letter typed by his attorney’s office and a check for $737.02 on the front seat of his car, ready to deliver to Vero Beach City Hall to pay his overdue electric bill.

Meanwhile, workers showed up to shut off his electric service. He vigorously protested and his Weimaraner got loose.

Indian River Shores Public Safety officers arrested him, and he was booked into the Indian River County Jail. His fiancée bailed him out and he showed up the next day to tell his story at a Taxpayers Association of Indian River County meeting.

Robinson hopes the charges get dropped, but he expects to spend about $3,000 in attorney fees, court fees and possible fines by the time he goes to court in March.

But that’s nothing, he says, compared to the more than $10,000 he’s paid extra in the past decade due to exorbitant electric, water and sewer rates charged by the City of Vero Beach.

Robinson wants the sale of the electric utility to go through. He can’t vote in the March 12 referendum because he lives in Indian River Shores, but he can share his frustration and urge friends inside the city limits to vote ‘yes.’

After retiring to Hawaii, Robinson relocated to Indian River Shores in 2003 to buy the Holiday House Designs flower shop for his former wife.

But animosity toward the Vero electric utility began to fester in 2004, when he and his Sea Forest neighbors were left for six weeks without electricity after hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. Not only did he have to rent a house to live in; the damage to his home in Sea Forest was exacerbated by the fact that there was no power to get any work done.

“Everybody was bragging about how quickly the city got power back up and we could get no information at all as to when it would be back on,” Robinson said.

When he hears the reliability of the Vero system used as a talking point by opponents of the sale to FPL, Robinson has a visceral reaction. That’s bull, he said.

But even in fair weather, Vero Electric provides almost daily nagging problems for Robinson. As part of his service on the homeowners association, he volunteers for a position jokingly referred to as “Minister of Maintenance” for Sea Forest.

“Under my responsibilities as minister of maintenance, I take care of the gate operation and 43 street lamps and we are always having huge power surges,” he said. “It blows the photo cells and blows the light bulbs and causes problems with gate operations.”

Robinson said he hired numerous electricians to look into the problem and the verdict was unanimous – power surges from the city’s electric system.

That’s not all, Robinson also fought with the city about mysterious hiccups in his utility bills.

A Dartmouth graduate with a degree in economic geography and a graduate degree from the Cornell School of Business and Public Administration, he keeps a notebook with meticulous records of his bills and his correspondence.

One month his bill skyrockets to more than $500 and the next month it’s unexplainably down, he said. His electric meter is inside a private courtyard – the very courtyard that his dog Tripp ran out of Dec. 4. Interestingly, he’d never before been asked to bring the dog inside so a meter-reader could enter.

On top of the issues with the electric utility, Sea Forest has a wastewater lift station just outside its gates that affects the quality of life of the residents.

“That thing stinks like hell most of the time; I’ve had to call the city five to seven times per year about it,” Robinson said.

All these factors came to bear, he said, the morning that a utility worker knocked on his door to shut off his electric service. The check he had in the front seat of his car – for 82 percent of his previous and current month’s total due – would have kept his lights on.

He’d just picked up the letter from his attorney’s office (Robinson does not type or use a computer) and made copies for all the Vero Beach City Council members, the Indian River Shores Town Council and the media.

A native of Chicago, Robinson worked his whole life in the corporate relocation business where he said he would look at things like the cost of housing, taxes and utilities.

“When I buy electricity, it’s a product like buying a bottle of water,” he said. “When I buy electricity, I don’t want to be buying part of a lifeguard or part of a park.”

Overall, Robinson said his biggest regret is the stress the utility issue has put him, his neighbors and the whole community under for years on end.

“All my anger and frustration with Vero Beach Utilities, all that negative energy that I had that day that I wouldn’t have had if we were with FPL,” he said.